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Monday, September 19, 2016

Top Ten: How to Email or Message Your Online Teacher

by Maureen Wittmann

I once received an email from a student that read:
im having trouble in my class
The subject bar read:
I'm sure you can figure out rather quickly why I was discouraged by this email. Even overlooking the lack of sentence structure, I was unable to help the student due to the scarcity of information given to me. I didn't know her name, the name of her course, nor the fine details of her problem. It turned out she was having difficulty using her microphone in her live online class. It was an easy fix and I had her up and running once I was given the necessary details of her problem.

We live in a world, consumed by texting and instant messaging, that has forgotten the importance of proper punctuation, grammar, form, and courtesy. I'm confronted by this fact far too often in my regular email communications.

It is understandable why this student's email was lacking many of the important elements required for effective communication. She was young -- a middle school student -- and this was her first online course. At Homeschool Connections, we require a certain level of etiquette in student correspondence, but this was the first day of classes and she had not yet been taught.

The Top-Ten List below will give you everything you need to learn the conventions of email etiquette and effective online communication. Whether you're a middle school student or college student, or somewhere in between, whether you're in a school, co-op, or taking an online class, the following guidelines will help you craft professional emails that give you the results you want and need when communicating with your teacher. This format should also be used when messaging your teacher (Moodle, in the case of Homeschool Connections students).

NOTE: These are general tips. You may have a teacher who has set specific guidelines for you to follow when emailing. If so, follow your teacher's instructions.

First, let's start with a basic template for emailing your teacher. This can be used or modified for any classroom situation. I've numbered each element, which corresponds to the Top-Ten List below.

(1) TO: Should this email go to the teacher or someone else?

(2) DATE: Make sure your emails are timely.

(3) SUBJECT BAR: School Name, Course Name, and Brief Summary of Problem.

(4) Dear Professor Last-Name,

(5) Meaningful nicety. A sentence or two that connects you to the teacher in a personal way.

(6) I’m in your Complete Course Name that meets on This Day at This Time. (7) This is the question I have or the help I need. I’ve looked at the Moodle course page, at my notes from class, and I reviewed the recorded class. (8) I think This Is The Answer, but I’m still not sure. Can you please help me? This is the Action I would like you to take.

(9) Another meaningful nicety expressing your gratitude for the instructor's help.

(10) Sincerely, Respectfully, God Bless, or similar sign-off,
Student Full Name (first and last)

(1) Make sure you are contacting the right person. All questions about course content and student performance should be directed to the teacher. Teachers should respond within 24 hours, with the exception of weekends, holy days, and breaks. Questions about technical problems should be directed to administration. For HSC students technical problems are sent to

(2) Your Emails Should Be Timely. Send your questions sooner than later. Teachers most likely will not be able to answer questions about an assignment if you send the email the day before the assignment is due. Be responsible by working on your assignments many days before their due date.

(3) The Subject Bar Should Be Clear and Detailed. This is a courtesy for your teacher that will also help you get a faster and clearer response. It is likely your teacher teaches more than one course and may even teach for more than one school or program. For a Homeschool Connections student, the subject bar should look something like this: HSC U.S. Contemporary History -- Question Week One Homework.

(4) Don't Skip the Salutation. Use "Dear". It shows respect and helps set a polite tone. Use Mr., Miss, Mrs. or Dr. If you are unsure of your teacher's title, you can't go wrong with Professor, even if it's technically not their title. 

(5) Start with an Introductory Nicety. It never hurts to start your email with a sentence along the lines of “I am enjoying your course,” or “I hope this email finds you well." It shows that you see your teacher as a person.  It doesn’t really matter exactly what you say in this opening sentence, it’s the polite opening that counts. Again, we're setting the tone for the rest of the email, as well as for your professional relationship with your teacher.

(6) State the Full Name of the Course with the Day and Time. Again, your teacher most likely teaches several courses. They may even teach the exact same course multiple times on different days and at different times. For example, instead of "I'm in your writing course" type "I am in your Fiction Writing 1: Plot and Structure course that meets on Thursdays at 11:00 AM Eastern."

If you would like a speedy response, this is a key component to your email. It is also a courtesy for your teacher who has other students to help (you are just one of many). Making your teacher's life easier is always a good thing.

(7) Address Your Problem Clearly and Don't Waste Your Teacher's Time. This is the whole reason you’re sending the email, so make it concise and to the point. Be courteous and clearly state what it is you need from your teacher without making excuses or giving excessive detail. Make sure you have exhausted all other avenues in seeking an answer to your question before emailing your teacher. For example, did you check your notes, review the syllabus, and pay attention in the class?

Teachers receive far too many emails from students seeking information that has already been communicated by the teacher in class or on the course page (syllabus). Finding the answer on your own will help you be a better student now and in the future.

(8) Propose, and Clearly State, Your Desired Solution to the Problem. Let your teacher see that you thoughtfully considered your problem and it's solution before deciding to write an email. State the solution clearly that you are seeking from the teacher. 

(9) Leave with a Closing Nicety.  For example. you can write, “If you could let me know at your earliest convenience, I’d really appreciate it.” Or, "Thank you for your help in this matter. Please let me know if you need further information from me." Again, a polite tone is always helpful and builds a good, effective relationship with your teacher.

(10) Your Sign Off Should Be Professional, Complete with Your Full Name. Always close with something along the lines of Sincerely or Respectfully. Since we are a Catholic program, "God Bless" or "In Christ" is also appropriate. Finally, sign your full name. There are likely other students on the teacher's roster with the same or similar first name as yours. Therefore, always sign with both your first and last name.

I have one last, very important, note for you. Whenever messaging or emailing a teacher always use formal grammar and punctuation. Do NOT write as though you are texting. Use full sentences, capital letters, proper punctuation, etc. Never use slang. Your teacher is a professional and it is expected that students will be professional in their correspondence.

Finally, we should address Follow-Up emails. Generally, teachers respond to emails within 24 hours, not counting holidays, vacations, and weekends. Therefore, you should wait at least that long before sending a second email. If your teacher hasn’t responded to your email in a reasonable amount of time, you can send a gentle reminder.

I recommend formatting the follow-up using the same elements listed above, but simply changing the content to “I am following up to my previous email.” Make sure to use a polite tone and never be accusatory. It could be that the teacher sent a response and it was lost in cyber space or it landed in your spam folder. It's also possible the teacher had extenuating circumstances beyond his control that kept him from answering in a timely fashion.

I have given you a lot to consider here, including many small details. I want to stress that those small details count. Learning how to craft effective, professional emails is a skill you can take with you into the world and the work place after graduation. A courteous and thoughtfully-constructed request is more likely to receive the kind of response you desire. It's always a good idea to give others the same respect that you would like for yourself.

In conclusion, here is a sample email using the above components:
HSC, Narnia for Young Adults, Need Week 6 Homework Assignment.

Dear Professor Smith,

I thoroughly enjoyed today's lecture on The Last Battle. I now have a new appreciation for C. S. Lewis and his fiction works.

I’m in your Narnia for Young Adults course that meets on Thursdays at 4:00 PM Eastern. I'm having trouble locating the assignment for Week Six. I’ve looked at the Moodle course page and I do not see it there. I reviewed my notes from class and I reviewed today's recorded class where you mentioned at the end there would be an assignment posted. It appears that the assignment has not been uploaded yet, but I could be missing it. Can you please help me and let me know if there is in fact an assignment and if it will be uploaded later?

I appreciate your help in this matter. and look forward to hearing back from you. Thank you.

Respectfully Yours,
Joseph Phillips

If you would like to learn even more about crafting professional correspondence, Homeschool Connections offers a Professional Business Writing course. Email us at for more details.

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